Saturday, October 06, 2007

Football crazy, football mad

(Originally posted on Silent Words Speak Loudest, but I thought it would be equally at home here...)

Enjoying Harry Pearson's brilliant 'The Far Corner' was something I should have done long ago - not least because no fewer than three different friends had at different times extolled its virtues to me. Jonathan is a self-professed fan and Skif has openly conceded that it was one of the main inspirations behind his ace football / travel blog Hobo Tread, while the other half of Black & White & Read All Over was so insistent that I should read it that he bought me a copy.

And I'm rather glad he did.

Pearson is a Billy Bragg lookalike and Guardian journalist with the misfortune to have been born in a village near Middlesbrough called Great Ayrton, whose most well-known son is the explorer Captain James Cook. Thankfully, he's also got a sense of humour about it: "It's quite poignant, when you think about it, that the most important figure in my home town's history should be famous for getting as far away from it as was humanly possible". Pearson also suffers from the connected misfortune of being a fan of the Smogs ("because I'm a glory-seeker", he deadpans), and 'The Far Corner' is a book which follows the ups and downs of the 1993-4 football season in his native North-East.

It may have been the year that my beloved Newcastle returned to the top flight thanks to the fantastic First Division winning season under the guidance of the messianic Kevin Keegan, and the book does duly kick off at St James's Park on that gloriously sunny day in mid August when the bubble of our optimism was pricked by a solitary Teddy Sheringham goal for visitors Spurs, but generally speaking the glossy football, bright lights and roaring masses of the upper echelons of the professional leagues are not for Pearson.

On the contrary, he's far more interested in lower league cloggers wallowing in mudpools of pitches, decrepit stands and one-man-and-his-dog "crowds": "The Gateshead International Stadium is immaculate. It has comfortable seats with adequate leg-room, excellent sight-lines, easy access, a roof that keeps out the rain rather than funnelling it down the back of your neck, a snack bar that doesn't smell like the biggest burp in history and clean toilets. In short it's a completely unsuitable place to stage a football match. Call me a romantic, but unless I've waded up to my ankles in urine, got wedged behind a pillar and had boiling hot Bovril spilled down the back of my legs by a fat bloke who's been poorly advised on the breath-freshening qualities of fried onions, I just can't settle down and enjoy myself".

It's a curious type of romance, to be sure - a kind of marriage that often seems loveless on both sides but is nevertheless founded on a deep affection: "Football is the only subject that can induce a bloke to swank about his fidelity". Loyalty is a particularly important source of pride in the North-East, Pearson reporting that moving back from London brought home the fact that the region's passion for football isn't some laughable myth but a concrete reality. But that's not to say that North-Eastern fans can't be fickle - which is why he claims of the return of Kevin Keegan, formerly a messianic figure as a black-and-white-shirted player, to St James's Park as a manager, that "tightrope walking across a cheese-wire without his trousers on might have been a safer option".

It's imagery like that which set Pearson apart from - in other words, above - other football writers. Surveying the terraces around him, he identifies two very different types of amateur commentator: the time-delay expert, who predicts something after it's already happened ("I think the delay comes because of the unusually long distance the thought must travel from his brain to the part of the body he speaks out of") and the Master, who glibly and fluently reels off mundane football cliches. Ever inventive in his phraseology, Pearson himself is certainly not a Master, and his cutting comments about those who are have made me try to raise my game considerably when it comes to match reports.

As you might have gathered, the imagery, similes and metaphors through which the action is narrated simply begs to be quoted. Of one player: "When the leather came in contact with his pate it made a solid splatting sound like a Greek fisherman tenderising an octopus". Of another: "He'd keep getting the ball and knocking it into spaces around the penalty area, gently, testingly, as if he were a doctor examining a patient, and every pass was a gentle prod with the question 'Is that where it hurts?'" By comparison, Pearson's own childhood talents and those of the rest of his school XI are described as being rather more modest: "If a film had ever been made of us a suitable soundtrack would have been a recording of a knock-kneed cat running up and down a glockenspiel".

Pearson's attention is often distracted from events on the pitch, though, directed towards everything from "those special football pies with asbestos-grey pastry that cracks to release the odour of a 1,000-year-old tomb" to old-fashioned commentators with accents "as crisp and glossy as fractured toffee, tagging on words like splendid, swift and superb, as if he'd got a job lot of sibilant adjectives on the cheap and was eager to get rid of them before they went soggy".

Comments (usually abusive) directed at players by spectators are faithfully transcribed, Pearson evidently appreciating the underrated inventiveness and dry wit of the fan on the terraces, as well as the absurdities football throws up - not least the Darlington chant "Quaker aggro": "I guess it would probably involve inviting opposition fans for a post-match cup of tea, then making them feel guilty for moaning about the lack of biscuits by asking them to sit silently for five minutes thinking about Somalia".

Pearson's ground-hopping - everywhere from Middlesbrough's Ayresome Park to Spennymoor Utd's Brewery Field via Hartlepool Utd's Victoria Ground ("not so much a theatre of dreams as a Punch and Judy stall for insomniacs") - makes 'The Far Corner' almost as much a travelogue as it is a book about football, and as such it's a hilariously frank depiction of the region. Thus Durham's coal coast is described as "a picturesque landscape, but only if the picture you had in mind was by Francis Bacon", and Hartlepool as "like a set from 'Mad Max', only it was colder".

Such comments aren't simply reserved for the "old" North East, though: "I suspect that in Conrad's 'Heart Of Darkness', when Kurtz cries out 'The horror! The horror!' he is not recoiling from the black void at the centre of the human soul, but simply recalling a trip to the Gateshead Metro Centre". Efforts to make cultural and financial capital out of the region's industrial past meet with equally short shrift: "Real heavy industry had been superseded by Industrial Heritage Centres in which you could go down a lead mine, ride on a tram, operate a threshing machine, catch consumption and die a premature death".

There are passages when the tone turns more serious - such as with the discussion of the racial abuse Andy Cole had to endure, even from his own fans - but Pearson knows to play to his strengths and it's not long before indignation has been put in check and sides are being split again. That said, it's these diversions which make it the charmingly "mazy dribble" of the subtitle - his observation that "I don't know who it was that invented egg mayonnaise sandwiches, but I suspect it was someone with a heavy investment in the dry-cleaning industry"; the time he spends reporting on the unofficial Love-Bite Championship of the World he conducted on a trip to Crook, won by a young chap who "was spindly, with wispy ginger hair, a velcro moustache and an Adam's apple so prominent it gave him the appearance of a cartoon ostrich which had just swallowed an alarm clock".

Hell, even the index is hilarious, featuring such entries as "Bugger, Fat; libidinous effect on aquatic mammals of, 145", "Keegan, Kevin; celebrated on midi-organ, 19", "Fitzgerald, F. Scott; gratuitous and pretentious mention of, 177" and "Sandwiches, alfalfa and tahini; manhood undermining properties of, 83". But then if you've got this far through the book without snorting food / coffee / bodily organs out of your nose in laughter, you must be dead.

The work of a gonzo anthropologist, sociologist and travel writer written out of a deep love of the region, the people and the sport - and a very funny one at that - 'The Far Corner' is a book to insist on pressing into the hands of everyone you meet, whether a fan of the beautiful and not-so-beautiful game or not. Thanks to Paul for pressing it into mine.


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